News at a glance: Q&A with E. O. Wilson

Today in the journal Science,  renowned biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson reflects on his experiences in the Florida panhandle, and answers some questions about the critically endangered Florida torreya tree.

Three Qs

E. O. Wilson wants to save rare Florida tree

Government officials, conservationists, and researchers—including renowned Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson—will gather next week in Bristol, Florida, to discuss the fate of the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia). Also known as stinking cedar, it is considered by many to be the most endangered tree species in the world. A deadly fungus has killed all but about 1000 trees, most of which grow along a 56-kilometer stretch of Florida’s Apalachicola River, and the pathogen has already infected the remaining trees. Science caught up with Wilson, who has been called “the father of biodiversity,” on the eve of his trip to the meeting.

Q:When did you first find out the Florida torreya was in trouble?

A:In July 1957. I was collecting ants up and down the Florida peninsula and panhandle. At Torreya State Park, we got a lot of good stuff. But we noticed that this marvelous endemic [tree] from the ice age was wilted. So, this is how it began, and now it’s on its last legs.

Q:What makes this tree and region special to you?

A:It’s where I come from, where I spent my boyhood. Not exactly there, but an area like that. I go to somewhere on the Gulf Coast several times a year, as I’ve been active in doing research to propose a new national park in the Mobile-Tensaw River delta [in Alabama] and to promote the setting up of a biodiversity corridor [that] would stretch from somewhere around Tallahassee and along the Gulf Coast as far as Louisiana. The Apalachicola River might be part of that.

Q:Can this tree be saved?

A:There is an out. The torreya has become a reasonably popular ornamental, and it’s being widely distributed. And in the return of the American chestnut, where there seemed to be no hope after it went completely extinct—therein lies the story of what could happen to the torreya. I’d like to see the torreya become a symbol and an issue that people are interested in.

More information concerning the upcoming event is available here…

Torreya Tree of Life

No rest for the laurels: symbiotic invaders cause unprecedented damage to southern USA forests

Laurel wilt is an extraordinarily destructive exotic tree disease in the southeastern United States that involves new-encounter hosts in the Lauraceae, an introduced vector (Xyleborus glabratus) and pathogen symbiont (Raffaelea lauricola). USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis data were used to estimate that over 300 million trees of redbay (Persea borbonia sensu lato) have succumbed to the disease since the early 2000s (ca 1/3 of the pre-invasion population). In addition, numerous native shrub and tree species in the family are susceptible and  threatened in the Western Hemisphere. Genetic markers were used to test the hypothesis that the vector and pathogen entered North America as a single introduction. With a portion of the cytochrome oxidase I gene, a single Xglabratus haplotype was detected in the USA. Similarly, Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms indicated that 95% (54 of 57) of the isolates of Rlauricola that were examined were of a single clonal genotype; only minor variation was detected in three polymorphic isolates. Similar levels of disease developed after swamp bay (Ppalustris) was inoculated with each of the four genotypes of Rlauricola. It is proposed that a single founding event is responsible for the laurel wilt epidemic in the United States.

Biological Invasions, July 2017, Volume 19, Issue 7, pp 2143–2157 

Cold tolerance range of Redbay Ambrosia Beetle overlaps range of Sassafras albidum.

Symptoms of Redbay Ambrosia Beetle attack (photo credit Marc Hughes)

Formby, J.P., Rodgers, J.C., Koch, F.H. et al. Biol Invasions (2017).

Native Lauraceae (e.g. sassafras, redbay) in the southeastern USA are being severely impacted by laurel wilt disease, which is caused by the pathogen Raffaelea lauricola T. C. Harr., Fraedrich and Aghayeva, and its symbiotic vector, the redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus Eichhoff). Cold temperatures are currently the only viable limitation to the establishment of X. glabratus in northern populations of sassafras…